Monthly Archives: January 2008

John 5:31-47 Testimonies

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on February 4, 2007.

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and that the late arrival of winter did not cause you problems. Arbor Acres provided lunch for the Divinity School this past week, which was a very kind thing to do. The chaplains from Arbor Acres let me know that several people listen to this broadcast every Sunday, and so today I want to give a special greeting to them. One of the things that I have had to get used to over the past year is that there are people listening to these lessons whom I may never meet, so I need to be careful what I say. I am sure that right now, someone out there is thinking, “If this is what Craig is like when he is careful, what is he like when he lets his hair down?” The answer is that you need to have hair to let it down.

The big event coming up this week is the visit of George Carey, the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury to Winston-Salem. He will be speaking at Wake Forest on Friday and at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Saturday and Sunday. No other Protestant Church has a position quite like that of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop sits in the House of Lords in Parliament and answers directly to the monarch, but he is responsible for Anglicans in every country. Bishop Carey has seen the challenges of globalization and post-colonialism close up. Another distinguished guest coming to the Divinity School is Bart Ehrman who will talk about two gospels that were rejected by the church. Speaking of other gospels, you may be interested in the fact that in 1935 two scholars published Fragments of an Unknown Gospel that was written on a papyrus dated to the middle of the 2nd century. One of the sayings in that unknown Gospel is found almost word for word in chapter 5 in the Gospel of John, which we are studying today.

 Read: John 5:31-47 

Language of Love:     One of the things that make John unique among the gospels is that the author used a few words over and over. This repetition of words makes the gospel a bit boring for the modern reader, but it also makes it relatively easy to read. Unlike Paul’s letters that are filled with long sentences and technical words, John tends to use terms such as Father (pater), Son (huios), judge, light, and darkness. At times, John sounds like a book written for young readers, a primer in the gospel so to speak. But the simplicity of John’s vocabulary and its repetition masks the complexity of the thought in the Gospel. That is true of the passage for today.

Last week I mentioned that this chapter appears to have been assembled from statements Jesus made at different times in his ministry, but it also reflects the experience of the church after the resurrection of Jesus. From John’s perspective, this is indeed “Jesus’ answer” to the religious authorities who challenged his healing on the Sabbath, but that does not mean that John thought Jesus spoke exactly these words at that moment. The story provided an opportunity to address an important controversy John’s church was facing. Chapter 5 addresses the meaning of Jesus for the worshiping community, many of whom were Jewish. Based upon what the church founded by the Beloved Disciple knew about Jesus’ teaching, works, and living presence with them, what was the answer to the charges brought by leaders in the synagogue? Raymond Brown concludes, “What we have in John is the product of the apologetic of the Christian Church against the Jewish objections to Christ, an apologetic grounded in Jesus’ own arguments, but now systematized. The whole of ch. V fits in well with the purpose of the Gospel to persuade Jewish Christians to leave the Synagogue and openly to profess their faith in Jesus.” (Brown, Gospel of John, 1:228)

The Witnesses to Jesus:       This passage focuses on those who “witness” to Jesus. The Greek words that John uses are martyreo (verb) or martyria (noun). This is, as you’ve probably already figured out, the word martyr in modern English. Over time “martyr” came to mean someone who sacrifices him or herself for a cause because the many Christian saints were martyrs who witnessed to their faith in Jesus even when it meant that they would be killed in brutal ways. The first Christian to be a martyr through his death was Stephen in the book of Acts, but all of the followers of Jesus are martyrs according to the use of the word in John. The disciples were martyrs who sacrificed their homes, careers, and lifestyles in order to serve and follow him. We are martyrs when we witness to the goodness of Jesus in the face of hatred in the world.

In the first century, the word martyr had a legal sense. John appears to be using this idea of the martyr as the witness in a court of law, and John also draws upon Hebrew legal tradition in this passage. He reminds the Jewish religious authorities that in the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 17:6 and Numbers 35:30), it states that a person could not be convicted of a serious crime based on the evidence of a single witness. This was in the days before cameras, DNA testing, and other tools of modern forensics that you know all about from CSI. We know all too well that an eye-witness can make a mistake. It could be an honest error or it could be a malicious act against the accused. So, the Israelites said that more than one witness is needed for a conviction.

Jesus is not really on trial for healing on the Sabbath, and so this dialog about legal witnesses may seem a bit overblown, but John uses this incident on the Sabbath to present the church’s testimony about Jesus. There was a need in the early church to justify why Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. They used Jewish sources in support. One of the signs that John’s gospel was written by a Jew, perhaps even a rabbi, is this statement that “If I am my own witness, my testimony cannot be verified.” The Talmud states that no one can bear witness on his own behalf because he is biased (Kethuboth 2:9; Brown, I:223).

Self-testimony:           Let us ponder this idea of self-verification. After class last week, someone raised the very good question about the differences between John’s Gospel and the Gospel of Mark. In John, Jesus boldly proclaims himself the Son of God, and as the gospel advances, he uses all kinds of metaphors to describe his unique relationship with the Father. But in Mark, Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples not to spread the news that he is the Messiah. This so-called “messianic secret” in Mark’s gospel is one of the most striking features of the gospel because it seems to be contrary to the whole purpose in writing the gospel, which was to tell the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). I remember taking Introduction to New Testament at Carolina in the summer of 1981 and learning about this Messianic Secret. It was a thrilling discovery that captivated me so much, I even wrote a paper on messianic ideas in rabbinic Judaism and early Islam. That class helped launch me on my career as a theologian.

We are not studying Mark’s Gospel, but let me point out that Mark’s Gospel was shaped by the experience and theology of the early church, just as John’s was. It is possible, believe it or not, that Jesus of Nazareth rejected the title of Messiah during his life and was only proclaimed the Christ after the resurrection. It is interesting that even in John, Jesus does not proclaim himself the Messiah; others do so. The messianic secret may have because Jesus himself did not want to be associated with the numerous political messiahs who had led failed rebellions against Rome. We also should remember that Mark was probably written around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, a time when people were looking for a messiah to save them from the Roman legions. There were enough failed messiahs for a lifetime.

More importantly, Mark’s community was struggling with the historical fact that most of the people who saw Jesus did not become believers. The church was a small community living in a hostile environment. The idea that Jesus did not proclaim publicly that he was the Messiah helped explain many things. The church would take the world by conquest, but would be a leaven working in secret. There is a third, intriguing possibility. Perhaps Jesus knew that only a false Messiah would claim the status of being the Messiah. The true Messiah would not bear witness to himself. Despite the amusing way this idea is presented in a Monty Python movie, there is something to ponder here.

John’s Messianic Secret?     This brings us back to John’s gospel. John’s portrait of Jesus includes bold statements that Jesus is the Son of the Father and does the work of the Father. These statements are such a contrast to the humility of the messianic secret in Mark that many scholars reject John as being far removed from the historical Jesus. This is often overstated. First of all, as we discussed last week, there is no reason to doubt the tradition that Jesus told some things to his disciples that he did not speak in public. It is likely that John took these teachings said in private and about put them into a debate with the religious authorities. We should also note that the Gospel of John acknowledges that there are problems with the idea that Jesus testified on his own behalf. We see that here in chapter 5.

Though quite different in style, Mark and John agree that Jesus’ ministry was not designed to draw attention to his own unique status. Instead, it was focused on leading people to God. The glory of Jesus was not his own; it was the glory of God. The works of Jesus were the works of God. Much modern Christianity often misses the point Jesus himself repeatedly made. Jesus is the mediator between God and humankind and not an end in himself. In this passage, John mentions messiahs who come in their own name claiming to be sent by God. He may have had in mind “messiahs” who arose before the first Jewish war, or he may have been thinking specifically of Simon bar Kosiba who began the second Jewish war in 132 AD. It does not really matter. They were not the one who was to come.

This issue is still with us. Just think of David Korech in Texas. He testified on his own behalf that he was the Son of God. The surest sign that anyone is not the Messiah is if he claims to be the Messiah. What, then do we do with Jesus’ statements in John that he is the Son of God? Before reading them out of context, we need to take seriously that in the first discourse of Jesus he instructs that we should not believe in him because of his own testimony. He calls upon several witnesses that testify on his behalf.

The Five Witnesses:              The first witness was John the Baptist, who is described as a burning lamp. This image of the lamp may have been a reference to Elijah in the apocrypha (Sirach 48:1), by the way. John was recognized by many Jews as a prophet of the Lord who spoke the truth, and John asserts that those who trusted John should trust his statements about Jesus. It was John the Baptist who identified Jesus as the one sent by God. All four of the canonical gospels make this claim, and it appears to go back to the earliest memories of the church. We have already noted that it appears that followers of the Baptist were in the community of the Beloved Disciple that wrote the Gospel of John.

Chapter 5 acknowledges that this is not the strongest witness to the sonship of Jesus. Indeed, there is no evidence outside of the New Testament that John acknowledged the superiority of Jesus. So, John provides other witnesses that come from God the Father. The first is the witness of the works that Jesus did, which are the works of God. These works include the signs and miracles that are narrated in John’s Gospel, but I think the word “works” includes more than supernatural deeds. All of the works of Jesus point to his intimate connection with God. He forgave sins and reconciled outcasts to the human community. He spoke out against injustices and challenged the oppression of religious authorities. He was Lord of the Sabbath and the interpreter of the Law of Moses. He washed the disciples’ feet and fed the hungry. As the prologue of John indicated, he was full of grace and truth at all times. We believe in Jesus not because we believe in miracles but because the things he did were filled with the goodness of God.

Es ist mir so!              The next witness John offers is the Father himself. It is not clear what John had in mind here since there was no story of the testimony of the Father at the Baptism of Jesus in John’s gospel as in the others. This passage even says that Jesus’ opponents never heard the voice of the Father. It could be that a distinction was being made between those who heard the voice at the Baptism and those who did not. The main point, though, seems to be that the testimony of the Father is not external to the believer; it is internal. The word of the Father is not something we hear with our physical ears; it is something that “abides” in a person. This inner voice of God allows someone to recognize the Son. In other words, we believe because God reveals Jesus to us and we accept this internal testimony as true. This is hardly evidence that will stand up in a court of law, but it is important in the spiritual life. Zinzendorf based much of his work on this idea that the truth is verified in your heart as well as your head. You believe in Jesus because the story of Jesus touches deep chords in your soul. Yes, this is a subjective view of spiritual truth. There are some truths that are beyond proof.

Scripture:        If this was the only witness to Jesus, we might accuse John of endorsing what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” but John also tells us that Scripture witnesses to the Son even though not everyone sees it. Protestants in particular need to remember that the scribes, priests, and Pharisees read the Scriptures. We tend to think that simply reading the Bible makes someone a Christian. Jesus is here quoted as saying that people thought eternal life was found in Scripture, but even though they counted every word, they failed to recognize eternal life when it appeared before them. Scripture witnesses to Jesus, but we can miss that by focusing too hard on Scripture.

I think we can safely say that people were so caught up in the literal reading and analysis of the text of the Bible that they missed the most significant revelation of God in the world. According to John 5, the problem was that people studied Scripture without the love of God. It is love that opens the Word of God for our hearts. It is love that makes the Scripture live in our lives. It is the love of God that is the true witness to Jesus, witnessing that he could bring us to God. It may be deliberately ambiguous that the “love of God” could refer to our love for God or God’s love for us. Interpreters may disagree on how many witnesses there are in this passage. Clearly there are John the Baptist and the Father, the works of Jesus and Scripture. I would say that the love of God is the final witness; others would say that Moses is.

Moses:           Moses is mentioned last in this discourse, but I think his witness is included in the witness of Scripture. It is that important, really. What is important is that this discourse ends with a clear statement that Jesus is not opposed to Moses or the Torah. This is often obscured in studies of John’s Gospel where Law and Grace appear to be opposing terms. Like Matthew, John’s gospel asserts in its own way that Jesus is the fulfillment and completion of the Law, not the rejection of it. Paul argued that the Law was a preparation for the coming of Christ. John expresses this in different terms. The Law of Moses, with its commandments to care for the poor, the widow, and the sojourner witnesses to the work of Christ. The Law of Moses, with its commands to love God and love neighbor points to the work of Christ.

According to John, Moses will accuse those who reject the witness of Jesus. Even though the Gospel of John has the harshest anti-semetic statements in Scriptures, it also strongly affirms that the God who gave the Law to Moses is the Father of the One who brings eternal life. There is no justification in John’s Gospel for the idea that there is a different God in the Old Testament than the New. Moses and the Pentateuch point to Jesus, according to John. Keep this in mind as you prepare for next week’s lesson which will recall the story of the manna in the wilderness.

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John 5:1-15: Healing at Bethesda

Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class; Originally aired on January 21, 2007.

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. I wish I could say, like Garrison Keillor that was a quiet week in the Atwood household, but I’m afraid that we had a big scare this week. My older brother was rushed to the hospital with severe chest pains. We are all grateful to the good doctors and nurses at Baptist Hospital who successfully implanted two stints to open his artery. One of the cardiologists involved in his care is a member here at Home Church. Being with Keith in the hospital was good preparation for this week’s lesson.

Healing:          Our topic for this week concerns the healing of a man who had been sick for 38 years. Last week we discussed miracles and belief in miracles. One of the things I did not point out was that miracles and healing are not necessarily the same things. It is easily to be so distracted by the power of Jesus’ miracle that we forget that the main point of most of them was healing. When we go to the hospital and a team of professionals do all they can to repair our bodies, they are engaged in healing, just as Jesus was. Should we be any less grateful for the gift of life and health because a nurse assisted us? In the gospels, we learn that questions about healing are not new. I’ll be reading from Raymond Brown’s translation of John 5.

Read 5:1-15

Bethesda:       Before going into the interpretation of this fascinating story, there are some technical points that you might find interesting. This is another passage in John that suffered in copying. There are a number of variant readings in the ancient manuscripts, particularly over the name of the place. The traditional reading is Bethesda, which means “house of mercy,” which is appropriate for both hospitals and churches. But many scrolls say it was Bethsaida or Bezatha. Bethsaida was a town in Galilee mentioned in the other gospels, that a scribe probably confused with Bethesda. Bezatha was an area of Jerusalem near the temple so that may be the right name, but there is evidence that there was a pool named Bethesda near the temple. We’ll go with the traditional name.

John gives an unusually detailed description of the pool with its five porticoes. In the last century archaeologists excavated a pool in Jerusalem that fits this description well. It is trapezoidal in shape and the longest side is over 300 feet long. There was a partition that may have separated the men and the women, and stairs led down into the water. Once again, we have evidence that at least portions of John were written by someone who lived in Jerusalem before the city was destroyed by the Romans. This passage was probably written before 70 AD and later incorporated into the gospel.

Sheep:             Another point of confusion among the ancient manuscripts the mention of a place named for sheep. It is not clear if this was the name of the pool as it was known in Greek. John likes to give the Hebrew and Greek names for things, but this might have been referring to the Sheep’s Gate near the Temple. Whether it was the gate or a pool, clearly John connects the pool of Bethesda with the area where sheep were taken into Jerusalem to be sacrificed at the Temple. The fact that modern archaeology has corroborated the geography of this story does not reduce the symbolism intended by the author. As John tells the story, a man lying near the Temple was healed by the Lamb of God who was to be sacrificed.

Early Christian theologians and preachers got too fanciful in interpreting the symbolism of this passage when they made it into a baptism story. The waters of Bethesda were compared to the waters as baptism as a means of healing. There is simply no evidence in the text to support that claim, especially since the man was never immersed in the pool. If this story refers to baptism, then it would appear to be anti-baptism rather than pro-baptism.  

Pentecost:       There is a liturgical context to this healing story, but it is not provided by the sacraments of Christianity. Jesus was in Jerusalem because he was observing one of the three major festivals of the Jewish calendar. Jewish men were expected to make a pilgrimage, if possible, to the Temple each year for Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. We will talk more about Passover as we come closer to Easter. Modern Jews refer to the other two feasts generally by their Hebrew names: Shavuot and Succoth. These were both harvest festivals, but in a warmer climate you have more than one harvest. Shavuot is a spring festival and Succoth is in the autumn when wheat is harvested.

We do not know for sure which of the three festivals drew Jesus to Jerusalem in this story, but it was probably Pentecost since he had already celebrated Passover. As the name implies, Pentecost was fifty days after Passover. According to Leviticus (23:15f.) it was the day after the seventh Sabbath after Passover. In other words, it was seven weeks plus a day. In Christianity, this feast of Pentecost was transformed because it was during the feast of Pentecost that the Spirit came upon the disciples. Perhaps the church should also take this story of healing as the model for understanding the season of Pentecost.

The Story:                   The story itself is fairly straight-forward. The pool of Bethesda was reputed to have healing powers. From time to time the waters were stirred, and that was taken as a sign that the healing power was available. Later copies of the gospel added a line that said that an angel descended to stir the waters, but that was not in the original text. No explanation is given for why the waters would bubble. Most likely, it was an underground spring or thermal activity. It is interesting that there is no discussion recorded in Scripture about this idea that a pool could have wonderful healing powers. It was not only Jesus who brought healing.

The point of the story is that this man has been infirm for 38 years and has been lying by the pool with the other blind, lame, and suffering souls. The King James Version states that this man was impotent, which is one reason that we need to keep retranslating the Bible. His condition would be misunderstood today if we said his was impotent, but the King James translation highlights an important feature of this story. Impotent simply means powerless. We don’t know how long he was lying there by the waters hoping to benefit from their mysterious powers. All we are told is that he is alone, powerless, and nearly hopeless. No one will even help him into the water.

The words “disabled” or “infirm” do not quite capture the full significance of his condition. It is not just that he was lame, sick, and unemployed. He was powerless in a world that rewarded power. He was alone in a world where family connections were vital. He did not have a doctor to call an ambulance. He did not have a wife to wait and pray for him. He did not have nurses to attend to him. He did not have medical insurance to help pay for his treatments. All he had was a fading hope that some day he would be able to crawl into a magical fountain walk again.

Today:            We miss the point of this story if we think of this simply as Jesus resolving a medical problem. This man was like too many Americans who lie on the streets or in homeless shelters each night. This man was like too many people in this world who are living in isolation and misery; who feel their powerlessness in ways that I can only imagine. This man was like too many of us who have given up on the hope of strength and love and happiness. This man lay there day after day watching the light reflect off of the water of the pool hoping that someone would have mercy on him and let him feel its renewing power. Day after day his hopes were disappointed and the dancing light on the water seemed to mock his misery.

The Healing:              But then a wandering Son of Man comes to him. Notice that the Gospel lesson does not tell us why Jesus picked this man out of all of the people lying by that pool. The ways of God remain mysterious. Jesus chose this man and asks if he wants to be cured, or more accurately, to be made whole. There is something moving in his question. The question itself may have been part of the healing. How many of us do not really want to be cured of our pet illnesses? Many of us have gotten used to our infirmities and weaknesses. People would demand more of us if we were strong and whole. Do you want to be cured? Do you really want to leave this undemanding life sitting by the pool and rejoin the hustle, bustle, and anxiety of living in the world?

The man doesn’t answer. Instead he explains to the stranger why he hasn’t been cured. He described his powerlessness to Jesus. Perhaps he expected that this kind young man to lift him into the water. Instead, Jesus gave him a surprising order. “Take up your mat, and walk.” How strange that must have sounded to this man. For 38 years he had been too sick to walk, and now this stranger with the piercing eyes is telling him to walk and carry the pallet that has been his security blanket for years. How tempting to turn away, roll over, and wallow in familiar misery and powerlessness. Perhaps that is what others did when Jesus tried to heal them. We don’t know. All we know is that somehow this man got enough courage from Jesus to stand up. He was cured, but he would not have been if had not made the effort.

There are clear parallels between this story and the story of the paralytic man in the Synoptic Gospels to whom Jesus also says “Take up your mat and walk,” but the differences are even more striking. In the story in the other gospels, Jesus was amazed at the devotion of friends who carried the sick man on his cot and then took tiles off of the roof to lower him to Jesus. In John’s account, it is Jesus who takes the initiative to heal this man, and first he asks if he wants to be healed. This is a parable of salvation. Jesus comes to offer of life and wholeness, but we have to want it enough to stand up.

Sabbath:         What comes next in the story may not have been part of the original story. If you skip the second part of verse 9 and go straight to verse 14, the story makes perfect sense. It appears that John or a later editor added a dispute over healing on the Sabbath. The Jewish authorities questioned the man because they saw him violating the 39th Sabbath prohibition. The New Yorker last week had an amusing article by man raised in a very conservative neighborhood who was convinced that the New York Rangers would lose the Stanley Cup if he violated the Sabbath. It gives some insight into the emotional weight of violating Sabbath laws, but Jesus was not going to a hockey game.

It is clear from the gospels that one of the most significant things that Jesus did during his earthly life was publicly violate the Sabbath laws of the Pharisees. This is the only such story in John, and its meaning of the story is a little different from Mark. The issue here is not the Sabbath itself, but the fact that the authorities were more concerned about the violation of a religious custom than the sudden healing of a man who had suffered for 38 years. They could not see that life and wholeness had come into Jerusalem. All they saw was a violation of the rules.

Not many years ago in Saudi Arabia there was a fire in a girls’ school. The students rushed to escape, but they were not wearing their head scarves. The religious authorities forced the police to keep the gates of the school locked so that these young women would not be seen uncovered in public. Dozens died while the authorities looked on. In America, we have religious authorities, Catholic and Protestant, who effectively oppose any attempt to educate Africans about simple and effective ways to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus. Millions of women and children are dying while Christian religious authorities watch to make sure a religious law is not violated. In the first century, people saw a powerless man suddenly gain the strength and health to walk on his own, and their main concern was who had violated the rules. It is far easier to cure the body than it is to cure a sick society where those who heal are persecuted and those who kill are glorified.

Sin:      Our passage for this week ends with Jesus finding the healed man in the temple. I suspect that Jesus was looking for the man because he had more to say to him. Like a doctor who has brought a patient through surgery, Jesus had post-healing instructions to give. He tells the man to remember that he has been made well. He is no longer defined by illness and weakness, but he should remember the change in his life. Then Jesus says something that has been a subject of controversy over the centuries. “Sin no more, for fear that something worse will happen to you.”

Many people have interpreted this to mean that Jesus thought this man’s illness was the result of something sinful he had done. In a similar account in the other gospels Jesus heals a person by forgiving his sins. But we should not immediately conclude that is the case here. Jesus did not say “Sin no more so that you will not get sick again,” the way a doctor might say, “Stop smoking or you’ll have another heart attack.” In the context of John’s Gospel where the focus is on enlightenment and eternal life, the “something worse” probably refers to spiritual deadness rather than physical illness. One of the most important teachings is that there are things that are worse than death and illness. Losing your soul is worse than losing your life. Moral cripples are more miserable than physical cripples. I think Jesus was taking a “teaching moment” to help this man see that wholeness or wellness or health involves more than the body. Walking away from Bethesda was only part of the story; now he has to stand on his own as a moral agent in society. Before he had little opportunity for sin; now he had to live in the world.

And the first thing he does is to tell the authorities who it was who violated the Sabbath. Did he do this out of fear of the authorities? Did he do it to shift blame off of himself? Did he do it because he was naïve and did not know what they were plotting? Did he do it in the hopes that the authorities would also seek out Jesus to heal the disease that was corrupting their souls? We don’t know why, but the irony is almost tangible. Jesus warns him not to sin and his first act as a free and healthy man is to rat on the man who helped him.

Lessons from John 4

John 4:43-54: A Prophet Without Honor

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast 1-14-07

Introduction:               We are still in chapter 4. Personally I think this chapter should have ended with the story of the Samaritan woman, but I wasn’t around in the 12th century when the chapter divisions were added to Scripture. Verses 43-45 of chapter 4 mark a clear transition from the story of the Samaritans to a healing story in Galilee. It is worth noting that they have long troubled biblical scholars. Raymond Brown says that they “constitute a notorious crux in the Fourth Gospel.” This crux was not invented by modern scholars; it was recognized as early as the 3rd century. The basic problem is that these verses show Jesus moving from Samaria to Galilee where he was warmly welcomed because of the reports of his miracles in Judea. But verse 44 speaks of the proverb that a prophet is without honor in his own country. You may have already seen the problem with this. A prophet is without honor in his own country, but the Galileans received Jesus of Nazareth enthusiastically. Some have speculated that John thought Jesus’ home was Judea rather than Galilee, but elsewhere he refers to Jesus being from Nazareth. Since scholars have been debating this question for over 1500 years, I think it is safe to leave it as a problem, but do note that this is one of those places in John’s Gospel where the transmission and editing of the text produced some difficulties.

No Honor:      It is interesting that the problem centers on a proverbial saying attributed to Jesus that a prophet has no honor in his own country. This is one of the few verses in John that is found almost verbatim in the other three gospels. It is different enough in form to indicate that John did not take it from Mark or Luke. What we have here is a statement that was part of a strong oral tradition known to John and the other evangelists because it described the life of Jesus who was honored more by outsiders than by his own people. It is also a proverb that remains true today. You’ve heard the quip that an expert is someone with a powerpoint presentation who travels more than fifty miles for the meeting. We often dismiss the insights, knowledge, and ideas of those closest to us because we know their flaws.

            Tomorrow is the annual celebration of the work and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We honor King by closing the post offices and sending teen-agers to the mall instead of to school, but we should remember that he was not always honored in America. During his lifetime, the world recognized his courage and vision, but many Americans objected when he received the Noble Prize. Our national leaders today pay homage to his memory now that he belongs to history, but we should remember that in the 1960s the FBI tapped his phone and read his mail. Our government viewed King as a threat. As you listen to the news today about government surveillance, remember that we put laws in place in the 1970s in direct response to what the government did to Dr. King and others who voiced opposition to the policies in Washington. We should also remember that Dr. King was killed by an American, just as Prime Minister Rabin was killed by an Israeli and Gandhi by an Indian. Prophets are not without honor – except in their own country where they tend to get killed.

            Amid all of the frequent references to his great speech “I Have a Dream,” we should also remember King’s commitment to peace and non-violent resistance. In his conviction that violence escalates violence, King was in line with traditional Moravian teaching. Dr. King was one of the many great figures of the 20th century who demonstrated that steadfast commitment to the teachings and example of Christ can move mountains. We should not speak too lightly of following the teaching and example of Jesus, though. Our lesson for today reminds us that a prophet is without honor in his own country. Speaking the truth, even in love, can lead a person to the cross, to the stake, or to the assassin’s bullet. Someone once asked me what the difference between a public theologian and a prophet was. Kathy Otterbourg gave the answer: prophets tend to get killed. I should add that they get killed by those whom they love and serve.

The main part of our lesson today is a healing story.

Read: 4:46-54                       

Signs and Wonders:               A few weeks ago I mentioned that there are seven miracle stories in John. In the other gospels, including those that were not included in the NT, Jesus performs many miracles. In Mark’s gospel, he spends an entire day healing the crowds of people that were brought to him in one village. As Marcus Borg indicates, there is strong evidence that during his lifetime, Jesus’ reputation rested mainly on these miraculous healings. As the priest says in Jesus Christ Superstar, “a trick or two with lepers and the whole crowd’s on its feet.” He cast out demons, which was the first century’s way of describing a cure for mental illness or epilepsy or deafness. There were exciting reports that he made blind people see and enabled the lame to walk. Our lesson for today says that Jesus was already famous because of the miracles he did in Jerusalem, which is a bit curious since the gospel did not narrate any miracles in Jerusalem. Clearly the author expected the reader to know that Jesus had done such things.

            There is no denying that miracles have been important in the history of Christianity, as they have in all religions. Christians today disagree over how much emphasis to place on miracles, though. Since the rise of modern science, many people reject all miracle stories as simply legend or fiction. In the 19th century, liberal biblical scholars looked for natural explanations for the miracles in the Bible. You can still see some of these theories on television. For instance, some writers speculated that the plagues of Egypt in the Old Testament were caused by natural phenomena, such as mud in the Nile. Such clever attempts to make the miracles seem rational ignore the fact that they were important because they were seen as supernatural. In the past, miracles were offered as support for the claims of faith, but today many people do not believe in Jesus or God or the Bible precisely because of the miracles in the Bible. I don’t think we can solve this problem this morning, but I imagine that some of you have struggled with this issue.

            Let me just say that the question of miracles is very complicated. There is the philosophical question of whether miracles are possible at all. Is natural law absolute? There is also an historical question of whether miracle stories can be trusted any more than similar stories today. Beyond that there is the question of whether belief in miracles is necessary for religious faith. Can you be Christian without believing in miracles? Different churches and theologians answer that in different ways. The Moravian Church is not dogmatic on the question of miracles.

            I think it is helpful to know that the relationship between miracles and faith has never been straight forward. Our lesson for today is unusual in John’s gospel because it refers to “signs and wonders” rather than just to signs. It is likely that this phrase was borrowed from the account of the Exodus where God tells Moses that Pharaoh will not believe even if he sees “signs and wonders.” What is the difference between a sign and a wonder? Simply put, a sign points beyond itself and a wonder points to itself. A wonder leaves your mouth agape. Magicians do wonders. Prophets give signs.

Faith:              Before looking at the details of this miracle story, let’s address the relationship between faith and miracles. Clearly, the gospels relate the miracles of Jesus as evidence of his power. The philosopher John Locke, who is considered the founder of modern empiricism, argued that the proof of Jesus’ divinity lay in the miracle accounts, but it is not so simple. Many people witnessed miracles of Jesus without believing in him. They recognized his power, but not the truth of his words.

            Think back on the inventions of the past century that seemed miraculous when they were first introduced but quickly became routine. Electricity is probably the best example of a force that we now control that still seems magical. Think how startled people were with electric lights and motors and wireless radio and telephones. Wonders hold our attention for a while and then lose their effect. Humans on the moon? Seen it. Wonder quickly wears off and cynicism sets in. So it is with miracles. I saw a cartoon of Moses presenting his resume to a search committee that replied, “sure you parted the Red Sea, but what have you done lately?” The trouble with basing faith on miracles is that you will always need another miracle, another wonder, another thrill.

            What is important for our discussion this morning is not whether miracles are possible, but how John deals with the miracles of Jesus in his gospel. In the Gospel of John, miracles are only important as signs of who Jesus is, not as evidence of his power. Many commentators note that Jesus’ statement that “unless you people can see signs and wonders, you never believe” is probably a criticism of those who must have miracles before they will believe. John seems to be saying that belief in miracles is different from faith in Jesus. Wonders, miracles, and supernatural events may dazzle our eyes for a moment, but faith endures. Faith is based in God, not in a display of supernatural power.

The Royal Official’s Son:      The healing story for today took place in Cana and Capernaum, which was the base of Jesus’ ministry in the other canonical gospels. There is a nice geographical touch in the fact that it says that the royal official went down from Capernaum to Cana to speak with Jesus. In fact, the 20 mile journey from Cana to Capernaum is downhill the whole way. Again, we see that John knew Palestinian geography.

            The royal official mentioned probably served in the court of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. It is not clear if the official was a Gentile or a Jew, but it probably does not matter. This story has strong parallels to the healing of the centurion’s son in the synoptic gospels as well as to the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s child. In these three stories, the narrative focuses on Jesus’ ability to heal a child from a distance, but there is also a focus on the faith of a Gentile who believed that Jesus had authority and power to heal from a distance, like a god. There are many differences between the healing story in the other gospels and this one in John in addition to the location, but the basic story remains the same. A person of great authority has a sick child. He has heard about the miracles of Jesus and sends to him for help. Many biblical scholars are convinced that all four versions of this story go back to a single event in the ministry of Jesus that was so dramatic it became part of an oral tradition.

            The stories in the other gospels also took place in Capernaum, but it is only John that says that Jesus himself was in Cana at the time. John makes a direct connection between the miracle of the wine and the healing of the boy. They were the two big miracles outside of Judea. In both stories, Jesus is initially reluctant to do what he has been asked to, but the resulting miracle is greater than expected. These stories are intended to teach us 1) that even persons with secular authority humbled themselves before Jesus; 2) that Jesus could heal without even touching someone; and 3) that prayer does sometimes change reality.

Life:                There is a progression in revelation from the first miracle of Cana, which confirmed to the disciples that Jesus was the one who would preside at the eschatological wedding feast. In this story, the royal official and “his entire household” believed in Jesus. This formula sounds like the book of Acts, where entire households converted to Christianity and were baptized in the name of Jesus. There is no baptism account here, but it is implied since it comes so soon after the baptismal story. John strengthened this theme of the spread of faith by placing this healing story immediately after the long account of the Samaritan woman.

            A second, and probably more important theme, is that Jesus brings life in situations where death is anticipated. In the prologue we read that in the Word brings life. Jesus promised Nicodemus that he could have everlasting life. And here, for the first time, Jesus restored a person to back to life. Jesus tells the royal official simply “your son is going to live.” He will say the same of Lazarus. And that is the message left to the church. This does not meaning that physical healings are to be expected or demanded. True life is a life that triumphs over death, not one that simply delays death.

Conclusion:     We have come to the end of chapter four, which marks the end of the first part of the Gospel of John. Next week we will look at chapter five and note that the action returns to Jerusalem. The next section of John is focused on events connected with Jewish religious festivals and observances: Passover, Succoth, and the Sabbath. We will have another important healing story next week that repeats some of the same themes.

John 4:43-54: A Prophet Without Honor

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast 1-14-07

Introduction:               We are still in chapter 4. Personally I think this chapter should have ended with the story of the Samaritan woman, but I wasn’t around in the 12th century when the chapter divisions were added to Scripture. Verses 43-45 of chapter 4 mark a clear transition from the story of the Samaritans to a healing story in Galilee. It is worth noting that they have long troubled biblical scholars. Raymond Brown says that they “constitute a notorious crux in the Fourth Gospel.” This crux was not invented by modern scholars; it was recognized as early as the 3rd century. The basic problem is that these verses show Jesus moving from Samaria to Galilee where he was warmly welcomed because of the reports of his miracles in Judea. But verse 44 speaks of the proverb that a prophet is without honor in his own country. You may have already seen the problem with this. A prophet is without honor in his own country, but the Galileans received Jesus of Nazareth enthusiastically. Some have speculated that John thought Jesus’ home was Judea rather than Galilee, but elsewhere he refers to Jesus being from Nazareth. Since scholars have been debating this question for over 1500 years, I think it is safe to leave it as a problem, but do note that this is one of those places in John’s Gospel where the transmission and editing of the text produced some difficulties.

No Honor:      It is interesting that the problem centers on a proverbial saying attributed to Jesus that a prophet has no honor in his own country. This is one of the few verses in John that is found almost verbatim in the other three gospels. It is different enough in form to indicate that John did not take it from Mark or Luke. What we have here is a statement that was part of a strong oral tradition known to John and the other evangelists because it described the life of Jesus who was honored more by outsiders than by his own people. It is also a proverb that remains true today. You’ve heard the quip that an expert is someone with a powerpoint presentation who travels more than fifty miles for the meeting. We often dismiss the insights, knowledge, and ideas of those closest to us because we know their flaws.

            Tomorrow is the annual celebration of the work and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We honor King by closing the post offices and sending teen-agers to the mall instead of to school, but we should remember that he was not always honored in America. During his lifetime, the world recognized his courage and vision, but many Americans objected when he received the Noble Prize. Our national leaders today pay homage to his memory now that he belongs to history, but we should remember that in the 1960s the FBI tapped his phone and read his mail. Our government viewed King as a threat. As you listen to the news today about government surveillance, remember that we put laws in place in the 1970s in direct response to what the government did to Dr. King and others who voiced opposition to the policies in Washington. We should also remember that Dr. King was killed by an American, just as Prime Minister Rabin was killed by an Israeli and Gandhi by an Indian. Prophets are not without honor – except in their own country where they tend to get killed.

            Amid all of the frequent references to his great speech “I Have a Dream,” we should also remember King’s commitment to peace and non-violent resistance. In his conviction that violence escalates violence, King was in line with traditional Moravian teaching. Dr. King was one of the many great figures of the 20th century who demonstrated that steadfast commitment to the teachings and example of Christ can move mountains. We should not speak too lightly of following the teaching and example of Jesus, though. Our lesson for today reminds us that a prophet is without honor in his own country. Speaking the truth, even in love, can lead a person to the cross, to the stake, or to the assassin’s bullet. Someone once asked me what the difference between a public theologian and a prophet was. Kathy Otterbourg gave the answer: prophets tend to get killed. I should add that they get killed by those whom they love and serve.

The main part of our lesson today is a healing story.

Read: 4:46-54                       

Signs and Wonders:               A few weeks ago I mentioned that there are seven miracle stories in John. In the other gospels, including those that were not included in the NT, Jesus performs many miracles. In Mark’s gospel, he spends an entire day healing the crowds of people that were brought to him in one village. As Marcus Borg indicates, there is strong evidence that during his lifetime, Jesus’ reputation rested mainly on these miraculous healings. As the priest says in Jesus Christ Superstar, “a trick or two with lepers and the whole crowd’s on its feet.” He cast out demons, which was the first century’s way of describing a cure for mental illness or epilepsy or deafness. There were exciting reports that he made blind people see and enabled the lame to walk. Our lesson for today says that Jesus was already famous because of the miracles he did in Jerusalem, which is a bit curious since the gospel did not narrate any miracles in Jerusalem. Clearly the author expected the reader to know that Jesus had done such things.

            There is no denying that miracles have been important in the history of Christianity, as they have in all religions. Christians today disagree over how much emphasis to place on miracles, though. Since the rise of modern science, many people reject all miracle stories as simply legend or fiction. In the 19th century, liberal biblical scholars looked for natural explanations for the miracles in the Bible. You can still see some of these theories on television. For instance, some writers speculated that the plagues of Egypt in the Old Testament were caused by natural phenomena, such as mud in the Nile. Such clever attempts to make the miracles seem rational ignore the fact that they were important because they were seen as supernatural. In the past, miracles were offered as support for the claims of faith, but today many people do not believe in Jesus or God or the Bible precisely because of the miracles in the Bible. I don’t think we can solve this problem this morning, but I imagine that some of you have struggled with this issue.

            Let me just say that the question of miracles is very complicated. There is the philosophical question of whether miracles are possible at all. Is natural law absolute? There is also an historical question of whether miracle stories can be trusted any more than similar stories today. Beyond that there is the question of whether belief in miracles is necessary for religious faith. Can you be Christian without believing in miracles? Different churches and theologians answer that in different ways. The Moravian Church is not dogmatic on the question of miracles.

            I think it is helpful to know that the relationship between miracles and faith has never been straight forward. Our lesson for today is unusual in John’s gospel because it refers to “signs and wonders” rather than just to signs. It is likely that this phrase was borrowed from the account of the Exodus where God tells Moses that Pharaoh will not believe even if he sees “signs and wonders.” What is the difference between a sign and a wonder? Simply put, a sign points beyond itself and a wonder points to itself. A wonder leaves your mouth agape. Magicians do wonders. Prophets give signs.

Faith:              Before looking at the details of this miracle story, let’s address the relationship between faith and miracles. Clearly, the gospels relate the miracles of Jesus as evidence of his power. The philosopher John Locke, who is considered the founder of modern empiricism, argued that the proof of Jesus’ divinity lay in the miracle accounts, but it is not so simple. Many people witnessed miracles of Jesus without believing in him. They recognized his power, but not the truth of his words.

            Think back on the inventions of the past century that seemed miraculous when they were first introduced but quickly became routine. Electricity is probably the best example of a force that we now control that still seems magical. Think how startled people were with electric lights and motors and wireless radio and telephones. Wonders hold our attention for a while and then lose their effect. Humans on the moon? Seen it. Wonder quickly wears off and cynicism sets in. So it is with miracles. I saw a cartoon of Moses presenting his resume to a search committee that replied, “sure you parted the Red Sea, but what have you done lately?” The trouble with basing faith on miracles is that you will always need another miracle, another wonder, another thrill.

            What is important for our discussion this morning is not whether miracles are possible, but how John deals with the miracles of Jesus in his gospel. In the Gospel of John, miracles are only important as signs of who Jesus is, not as evidence of his power. Many commentators note that Jesus’ statement that “unless you people can see signs and wonders, you never believe” is probably a criticism of those who must have miracles before they will believe. John seems to be saying that belief in miracles is different from faith in Jesus. Wonders, miracles, and supernatural events may dazzle our eyes for a moment, but faith endures. Faith is based in God, not in a display of supernatural power.

The Royal Official’s Son:      The healing story for today took place in Cana and Capernaum, which was the base of Jesus’ ministry in the other canonical gospels. There is a nice geographical touch in the fact that it says that the royal official went down from Capernaum to Cana to speak with Jesus. In fact, the 20 mile journey from Cana to Capernaum is downhill the whole way. Again, we see that John knew Palestinian geography.

            The royal official mentioned probably served in the court of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. It is not clear if the official was a Gentile or a Jew, but it probably does not matter. This story has strong parallels to the healing of the centurion’s son in the synoptic gospels as well as to the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s child. In these three stories, the narrative focuses on Jesus’ ability to heal a child from a distance, but there is also a focus on the faith of a Gentile who believed that Jesus had authority and power to heal from a distance, like a god. There are many differences between the healing story in the other gospels and this one in John in addition to the location, but the basic story remains the same. A person of great authority has a sick child. He has heard about the miracles of Jesus and sends to him for help. Many biblical scholars are convinced that all four versions of this story go back to a single event in the ministry of Jesus that was so dramatic it became part of an oral tradition.

            The stories in the other gospels also took place in Capernaum, but it is only John that says that Jesus himself was in Cana at the time. John makes a direct connection between the miracle of the wine and the healing of the boy. They were the two big miracles outside of Judea. In both stories, Jesus is initially reluctant to do what he has been asked to, but the resulting miracle is greater than expected. These stories are intended to teach us 1) that even persons with secular authority humbled themselves before Jesus; 2) that Jesus could heal without even touching someone; and 3) that prayer does sometimes change reality.

Life:                There is a progression in revelation from the first miracle of Cana, which confirmed to the disciples that Jesus was the one who would preside at the eschatological wedding feast. In this story, the royal official and “his entire household” believed in Jesus. This formula sounds like the book of Acts, where entire households converted to Christianity and were baptized in the name of Jesus. There is no baptism account here, but it is implied since it comes so soon after the baptismal story. John strengthened this theme of the spread of faith by placing this healing story immediately after the long account of the Samaritan woman.

            A second, and probably more important theme, is that Jesus brings life in situations where death is anticipated. In the prologue we read that in the Word brings life. Jesus promised Nicodemus that he could have everlasting life. And here, for the first time, Jesus restored a person to back to life. Jesus tells the royal official simply “your son is going to live.” He will say the same of Lazarus. And that is the message left to the church. This does not meaning that physical healings are to be expected or demanded. True life is a life that triumphs over death, not one that simply delays death.

Conclusion:     We have come to the end of chapter four, which marks the end of the first part of the Gospel of John. Next week we will look at chapter five and note that the action returns to Jerusalem. The next section of John is focused on events connected with Jewish religious festivals and observances: Passover, Succoth, and the Sabbath. We will have another important healing story next week that repeats some of the same themes.

Lessons from John

John 4:4-42 – Living WaterHome Moravian Church Adult Bible Class, originally broadcast 12-17-06

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Before the divinity students left for their holiday, I read them Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Many modern Christmas movies have a theme of apocalyptic struggle between Santa and some agent of evil who tries to prevent Santa from bringing toys to children. Such movies reflect manufacturers’ fear that someone might find a way to curb the orgy of self-indulgence that Christmas has become and hurt their profits. But there is more to these movies. They are drawing on the tradition of Christian dualism, which is the idea that life is a struggle between Satan and Jesus. This idea is popular in many churches, and it sometimes leads to violence, as it almost always does in the movies.

            The Grinch endorses a different type of Christian theology. The villain in the Grinch is a petty figure who lives in isolation, warmed only by his resentment and his hatred. He is indeed Satan in the Christian tradition, a pathetic twisted figure who exiled himself from happiness. Like Satan, the Grinch works at night, secretly slinking into town to steal what he thinks is the source of happiness. He takes all of the trappings of Christmas, but he does not enjoy what he is has stolen because all he knows is resentment. But in his moment of apparent triumph, he discovers that Christmas does not depend on presents. Presents are merely symbols of the joy that the Whos know every day. It is the persistent joy of those he hoped to harm that transformed the Grinch, and made it possible for him to make a moral choice. He chose freely to embrace joy and love and giving. He returned what he had stolen, and was welcomed by those he had hated. This is what redemption and reconciliation are all about. What we have here is the theology of the early Christian theologians, like Gregory of Nyssa and Origen. The redemptive work of Christ will not stop until all have been reclaimed by the love of God.

Overview:       This leads us into our lesson for this week, which is the story of the woman at the well. It is one of the longest stories in the four gospels, and it can be nicely divided into three separate scenes. First, Jesus meets a woman at the well. In the second scene, she has left and the disciples converse with Jesus. In final scene, she returns with the townspeople who believe in Jesus because of his witness.

            I used the word “scenes” intentionally. This is one of the most literary stories in the Bible, which is one reason it is so popular in churches today. The conversations of Jesus work on more than one level of meaning, and there is dramatic tension throughout the story. To say that this is very well-written drama is not to say that it is fictional. As usual with the Gospel of John, there are details here that are remarkably accurate, but I think Raymond Brown is correct that the evangelist has taken traditional material “and with his masterful sense of drama and the various techniques of stage setting, has formed it into a superb theological scenario. Misunderstanding, irony, the quick changing of an embarrassing subject, the front and back stage, the Greek chorus effect of the villagers – all these dramatic touches have been skillfully applied to make this one of the most vivid scenes in the Gospel and to give the magnificent doctrine of living water a perfect setting.” (Brown, I:176) Rather than getting bogged down in discussions of whether the conversation with the Samaritan woman happened exactly as told by the evangelist, we will focus on the meaning of the narrative itself and the teaching Jesus gives here.

Read: 4:4-10

Samaritans:    Most of ancient manuscripts identify the town here as Sychar, but some researchers think this was probably a scribal error since the town that is described is clearly Shechem. That is where Jacob’s well is located. Shechem is also at the foot of Mt. Gerizim, the sacred mountain of the Samaritans. The woman says that her ancestors worshiped “on this mountain,” which indicates that she was standing near Mt. Gerizim. This story displays a good knowledge of Samaritan culture and religion. Even the reference to four months before the harvest later in the story indicates that the author was familiar with the Samaritan calendar, which reckoned months according the wheat and barley harvests.

            Even more important is the fact that the evangelists apparently understood that the Samaritans had a different understanding of the Messiah than the Jews did. For the Jews, the Lord’s anointed was a descendent of King David who would defeat his enemies and rule from Jerusalem. That is the messiah that we sing about in Advent, but the Samaritans were looking for someone called the Taheb, which means the one who returns. The Taheb was to be a prophet like Moses. This prophet would be a teacher of the true law of God who would restore right relationships.

            Since this story displays surprising familiarity with the geography and culture of Samaria, and the portrayal of the woman and the disciples is very true to life, it is safe to assume that it was based on actual events. But we should not read this text simply as history. For one thing, there are some unavoidable difficulties in this passage. The other three gospels state that Jesus avoided Samaritans and instructed his disciples not to preach in Samaritan towns (Matt. 10:5). That may simply reflect the anti-Samaritan prejudice of Matthew rather than the practice of Jesus since Luke’s Gospel gives a more positive view of Samaritans.

            In Acts chapter 8 we have a story of the conversion of the Samaritans after the martyrdom of Stephen. There is no indication in that story that anyone in Samaria had believed in Jesus before the apostles preached to them. It is intriguing that John was one of the apostles sent by the church in Jerusalem to teach the new converts and lay hands on them, according to Acts. It seems quite likely that the apostle John maintained ties to the Christians in Samaria and that this story reflects that special relationship between John and the Samaritans. I have often wondered if the anti-Jewish sentiments in John’s Gospel were a reaction to the hostility of the Jews towards the Samaritans.

            The Samaritans were descendents of the Israelites who had not been deported by the Assyrians when the kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 722 BC. For centuries the kingdoms of Judah and Israel had quarreled over land and over which temple was the true house of God. The Judeans believed that the Samaritans were no longer Israelites because they have intermarried with the various peoples who moved into the region. The conflict between the Jews and the Israelites in Samaria grew worse after the Babylonian captivity, especially after the Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem. Jewish leaders insisted that only the Jerusalem Temple was the house of God. In 128 BC Jewish soldiers destroyed the Samaritan’s Temple on Mt. Gerizim, and Jewish rabbis instructed the faithful that Jews should have no contact with Samaritans. Intermarriage was especially forbidden. Thus, it was shocking that a Jewish rabbi and prophet would have been talking to a Samaritan, but doubly shocking to be talking to a Samaritan woman.

The Woman:              If we keep in mind the Book of Genesis, the encounter at the well becomes even more intriguing. The women specifically mentions Jacob, I think, to remind the reader of the famous story of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well. The Samaritans had this story in their Scripture, too. Jacob removed the stone so that Rachel could draw water, and they fell in love. Here, Jesus meets a strange woman at Jacob’s well and offers her living water. It is probably not accidental that this reminder of the Jacob and Rachel story comes immediately after John’s declaration that Jesus is the Bridegroom. This story looks like it will lead to the marriage of Jesus and this woman, but then it takes a different turn. Jesus offers her something more lasting than earthly love and marriage. He offers her living water.

            Preachers through the centuries have been overly harsh to this woman at the well. The discussion of her five previous husbands has been used to brand her as immoral, but that is unfair for many reasons. On the practical level, women did not have the right of divorce, so her situation was probably not her choice. Most likely, she was divorced because she was barren rather than immoral. More importantly, Jesus never condemns her or even mentions sin. This is different from the story of the woman caught in adultery. Lastly, it is possible that the reference to five husbands was symbolic. The Hebrew word for husband was ba’al, which was also the word used for pagan deities. This may have been John’s way of saying that the Samaritans had worshiped pagan ba’als in the past and now worshiped the true God without really knowing who him. We can’t say for sure.  

            What we do know is that Jesus and this unnamed woman carry on a fairly sophisticated theological discussion, which is an indication of the high value that the early church placed on women. That changed rather quickly after the first century, but we can be grateful that the Scriptures recorded the memory of a time when the gospel was for men and women equally. We can even contrast this story with that of Nicodemus. The Jewish man did not profess his faith publicly, but this unnamed woman preaches openly about Jesus. In John’s gospel, she is the first evangelist to spread the news of Jesus. She is also the first non-Jew to believe in Jesus; therefore she is the first fruits of all the nations. It is so sad that we do not know her name, but I bet she was remembered as a saint by the church of the Beloved Disciple.

Living Water              We cannot address all of the rich themes of this lesson, but the focal point of this story is Jesus’ discussion of living water. Like the earlier conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses a phrase that his listener misunderstands by focusing on the earthly meaning. Normally, living water means running water from a spring as opposed to water in a cistern. Living water is preferred because it is fresh and less polluted. Living water could also mean water that gives life as opposed to water that has gone bad. The Dead Sea, for instance, does not have living water.

            The woman naturally thinks Jesus is speaking literally here, and she gently mocks him for offering her water when he does not even have a bucket to draw from Jacob’s well. Jesus presses home his point by telling her that the water he gives means that she will never be thirsty again, but she again takes him literally, if not exactly seriously, and she challenges him to provide this water so she will not have to come to the well again. Throughout John’s Gospel, we have these stories to teach us not to take the Word of God too literally, and yet people still do. Jesus challenges the woman at the well, and us, to look beyond the needs and concerns of the moment; to look beneath the surface and draw life from the source of life.

            Jesus teaches her that the water he gives will cause a fountain to open up inside her and give her eternal life. In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a wealthy industrialist is searching for the Holy Grail because his workers found an ancient inscription that said that the cup of Christ gives living water that grants eternal life. He was looking for a way to perpetuate his own pitiful existence on this earth, and completely missed the point of eternal life. The life Christ offers this woman is a form of living that starts in this world and continues beyond the death of the body. It is not simply existence; it is a living engagement with the source of life, an interconnection with all that is. Jesus tells this woman that her physical thirsts and longings are less important than her spiritual longing. She is thirsty deep down, and Jesus can make it possible for a fountain to spring up in her soul. It is likely that the evangelist or Jesus himself had in mind Psalm 42 “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.” Some of you know this deep aching thirst for a meaningful and hopeful life, for a connection with the creator.

            Scholars have long debated the question of what Jesus was offering the woman. Some think he was offering himself, but the water he mentions seems to be a gift other than himself. It is likely, based on what we have read in John so far, that Jesus was offering the woman a new revelation of God. He was the one who would give the true teaching that would be available to Samaritans as well as Jews. It is also likely that the water was a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, which is often connected with water in John’s Gospel. The early church connected this passage to baptism, and we can see why. Not only does this story immediately follow a discussion about baptism; it makes specific mention to water as the source of life and salvation.

Worship in Truth:       This, in turn, leads to another vital theme of the Gospel of John. You will worship the Father neither on Mt. Gerizim nor on Mt. Zion. Instead, true worshipers of the Father will worship in spirit and truth because God is Spirit. There is some evidence in NT that there was a division among Christians over the importance of Temple worship. In the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem, under the leadership of James and Peter, continued the practice of Temple worship, but the so-called Hellenizers (or Greek Christians) associated with Stephen and Philip did not. It appears that the Beloved Disciple sided with the Hellenizers. We saw in the cleansing of the Temple that according to John, the appearance of Christ meant that the Temple was no longer necessary.

            This rejection of the centrality of the Temple by some apostles made it possible for the church to survive the destruction of the Temple in 70. It also made it easier for the church to spread throughout the world, which is a theme of this passage. According to John’s account, Jesus broke the bonds of Judaism and traveled beyond the borders of Judea to bring the good news of salvation to the Samaritans. Whatever else we or scholars may say about this passage, it is clear that it is a message of radical inclusion. The work of Christ, as Paul indicates in his letter, included the breaking down of the walls that divide people by race and nationality. Samaritans, Jews, and pagans could be brought into the new spiritual Temple of God.

            There is another aspect of this idea of worshiping in spirit and truth that is meaningful for us today. Through the centuries, spiritualist sects have used the Gospel of John to justify their rejection of traditional worship forms and houses of worship. I not sure that John’s Gospel is as anti-institutional and anti-ritual as they assert, but I do think we can agree that the key to understanding this statement is to remember that John wants us to look beyond the literal and earthly to the spiritual. Even the sacraments themselves must point beyond themselves to genuine transformation and worship of the one who made all things. Rather than fighting over rituals or styles of worship, we need to move beyond style to substance. What is important in worship is not the where or the when or the how; it is the why. Do we worship God spirit and in truth or do we merely perpetuate our prejudices? Do we worship in spirit and truth or do we use worship and doctrine to erect barriers and deny thirsty people the water of life?  

Genesis Folklore of Faith lesson 17

Genesis 15 – Sealing the Covenant Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 5 2006 

Introduction:   Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I had lunch with a friend last week who told me a little about his experiences working as a volunteer for the Salvation Army on the Gulf Coast. He summed it up by saying that it was the most mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting thing he has done in his very active life. It was also the most uplifting spiritually. He experienced what we call the state of grace. My wish for you today is that you have the opportunity to give yourself so completely in love to others that you know what it is to be lifted up by our Lord and filled with his spirit. With this in mind, let us turn our attention to the story of Abraham and God’s covenant. I will be reading from Genesis 15. This is a long passage, but it is best to look at it as a unit.

Introductory Notes:               This is one of the most eerie stories in the Bible. For the most part, the Bible is a very down to earth book, but here in Genesis 15 we have a mysterious tale that takes place in the terrifying dark of night. Even with the strangeness of this tale, Genesis 15 presents some very important themes for biblical faith. One commentator asserts that “this chapter is pivotal for the Abrahamic tradition. Theologically, it is probably the most important chapter of this entire collection.” (Brueggemann, Genesis, 140). I’m not sure he is correct, but this chapter was quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans, and it played a major role in the faith journey of Martin Luther.

            As with the other stories in Genesis, there is no clear consensus on when this story was written. Some view it as one of the oldest stories in the Bible because it has a strange ritual in it, but others see it as being written after the exile because it anticipates many of the themes and issues of later Israelite history. The statement “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans” reflects the opening of the Ten Commandments where God reminds the people that he brought them out of the land of Egypt. There is no way to solve the problem of dating this text, but it seems likely that this story, along with the rest of Genesis, was written after the exile as a prequel to the story of Exodus. A prequel is a story written after the first book or movie that takes place before the first book or movie. Authors do not always start at the beginning. Sometimes they start at the most important part – the main story.

            The main story of Israel was the story of salvation from slavery in Egypt and the giving of the law of God. Genesis, like a prequel, places the story of the Exodus in a larger frame. It introduces some of the most important ideas and themes of the later stories. Here in chapter 15. God tells Abram that his descendents will be oppressed for four hundred years but will emerge victorious. In other words, it places the story of enslavement into the story of Abraham. It is hard, however, to square this prediction of 400 years of slavery with the statement that Abram’s descendents will return in the 4th generation. That is just another reminder that the Bible is made up of multiple sources that do not always agree in every detail. The point remains clear. Abram’s descendents may suffer, but they will return to their land.

Hope When the Promise is Delayed:            If I am right that Genesis was written after the exile, then chapter 15 is not just a prophecy about the Exodus; it is an important message of hope in a time when there seemed to be no hope. It was written in a time of devastation, a time of exile, a time when people were losing their faith. When the exiles were allowed to return to Israel, they found a ruined city overrun by jackals. The people were exhausted and filled with doubt and despair. What hope was there? Only this idea – that God was true to the covenant. During those dark days of exile and soon after, a priest or scribe of Israel took ancient stories about Abraham and wove them into a narrative of hope in times of doubt. Abraham faced despair and overcame.

Questioning God:       In our reading about Abraham, we have seen that the whole story depends on God’s promise that he would be the father of a nation. He is still called Abram at this point, by the way. To be the father of a nation, he would need an heir, but Abram was growing old and still had no child. His wife, Sarai, was barren. It was a tough situation, and in ch.15 Abram doubts God’s promises. He asks God the hard question: How can it be that I become father of a nation when I don’t even have children? He even contemplates making his favorite slave his heir. Incidentally, this is one bit of evidence that slavery in the Bible meant something quite different from slavery in America. Could you imagine Thomas Jefferson naming one of his slaves his heir? He wouldn’t even acknowledge that some of the slave children on his plantation were his. This is just a reminder that we need to read the Bible on its terms, not ours. But let us return to Abram.

            We can learn something from this little story about Abram raising his doubts and questions to God. If the father of faith could ask hard questions of the LORD, why should we fear to speak to God about our doubts, weaknesses, and fears? I know it sounds odd to unbelievers, but the best thing to do when you doubt God or have trouble believing in God is to pray. Ask your hard questions of God. Tell him your doubts. God is strong enough for your doubts and questions. He may treat you with the same regard he showed Abram, but that may be a bit scary as we shall see. Genesis 15 opens with Abram questioning God, and God answers him. The LORD renews the promise. Once again Abram hears the words that led him out of Mesopotamia and into Canaan, but this time is different. This time it is harder to trust and obey. So this time the LORD does more than just speak, he acts and asks Abram to do something as well.

Sacrifice and Covenant:        Parts of this story are not for vegetarians, I’m afraid. Abram has to select five animals of declining size from a cow to a pigeon. Each of them was to be three years old. These were probably valuable animals. Even though commentators through the centuries have tried to find reasons for the selection of these particular five animals, it appears that they are largely arbitrary choices. Perhaps at one time people would listen to this story recited in worship or around the campfire and say, “of course you need a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. It’s plain as day what that means, and only a fool would use a billy goat instead of a nanny goat.” But three millennia later we read this and scratch our heads. To be honest, they were scratching their heads two millennia ago and made up allegorical interpretations to explain the animals. Today, most scholars simply admit to not knowing. Though the animals were clearly important at one time, their meaning has been lost.

Covenant Ritual:        Except for the birds, Abram cut the animals in half, and he kept the vultures away from the fresh meat. It is a rather gruesome image, isn’t it? I don’t recall us having these figures on our felt board in Sunday School. Can’t you just picture the look on the teacher’s face if a student were to cut one of the paper animals in two like Abram? This is a passage that reminds us the Bible emerged in a different world than we do. Imagine sealing contracts this way! Can’t you picture a lawyer drawing up an agreement with two parties and then slaughtering a goat to seal the deal?

            Biblical commentators still have some difficulty with this passage. No one quite does the symbolism of this ritual. Walter Brueggemann dismissed the story of the bisection of the animals by saying “Verses 7-11 present a curious ritual act that is probably very old.” (Genesis, 148). Years of research are summed up in that terse phrase, it ‘is probably very old.’ The reason this passage causes difficulties for scholars is that no one has found the same ritual in the Bible or among the neighbors of the Hebrews. Jeremiah 34, written shortly before the Exile, mentions something similar but it does not give the details. The fact that Jeremiah mentions this type of ritual may indicate that the story is not as old as many scholars assume. We don’t even know what it really means.

            The best guess of biblical scholars is that cutting the animals in two symbolized what would happen to the person who made the covenant. If you break this agreement, you’ll be slaughtered like these animals. That may well be true, but it seems a bit weak to me. It is possible that this is one of those rituals that invert what one expects. Animals are divided instead of the people making the contract.

            Whatever the precise reason for this obscure rite, the main purpose of this story is clear. This was a way to seal an agreement before people had written contracts. Those making the agreement walked between the halves of the animals as a sign of their commitment to the covenant. So far so good. At this point in the story we would expect that Abram will walk through the carcasses, but he doesn’t. It is not Abram who seals the covenant and binds himself to God. It is the LORD who binds himself in covenant to Abram. God is the one who acts.

Smoking Pot and Flaming Torch:                  If I were making a movie of Genesis, I would definitely include this scene, because it is so visual and so strange. The crucial part of this story takes place during a dream. Readers often miss that the flaming torch and pot appear after Abram has been overcome by an unnatural sleep. We are told that the darkness was deep and terrifying, and so was the dream. The terrifying aspect of this vision of Abram is consistent with what scholars have learned about religious experience in general. An encounter with the holy is both frightening and attractive. It is uncanny in the deepest sense, and it leaves a person changed.

            One of the odd things in this passage is that elsewhere God simply talks to Abram, but here we have an eerie mystical experience. This may indicate that this story of Abram’s dream comes from a different source than the other Abraham stories. It does seem to be closely connected to the story of Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai where the LORD was represented by fire and fear. The smoking pot in this story is not a reference to drug use in the Bible, by the way. This probably refers to the incense pots used in the Temple. The priests of Israel used smoke from incense to purify the house of God and prepare to enter the presence of God. The smoking pot precedes the flaming torch, which recalls both the pillar of fire and the burning bush. Fire and incense were associated with the deity in ancient Israel, and we can assume that it is the LORD who ritually passed through the dead animals.

God’s Binding Agreement:                We should not pass too lightly over this story because this is one of the most audacious claims made in the Bible. This story goes beyond a promise or even a verbal agreement. According to Gen. 15:18, the LORD entered into a legally binding contract with Abram, just like a mortal would have done. Abram does not make the covenant and bind himself to God; it is God who makes this arrangement with Abram. As far as we can tell, the symbolism of this covenanting ritual is that it is binding as long as the person who makes it lives.

            Why do this? Why would the LORD go to such extraordinary lengths? To convince Abram that he was serious and his promise was true. This was done to strengthen the faltering faith of Abram. More importantly, it was to strengthen the faltering faith of Abram’s descendents during and after the exile. Though there would be times of great distress, the LORD had sealed a covenant with Abram. Though there would be enemies who sought to eliminate Israel and commit genocide, the LORD would not forsake the children of Abraham. I think it is important that we pay close attention to the LORD’s promise in this covenantal ceremony. He promised the land to the descendents of Abraham without distinction. This is often ignored by those involved in modern Middle Eastern politics, including some prominent televangelists in America. In the next chapter, we see that Ishmael is born as a partial fulfillment of the promise.

Believed:                    There is one important verse in this chapter that I haven’t discussed yet. It is a verse that has helped shape Christianity, especially Protestantism, and it appears in the lectionary. “And he believed the LORD and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” For Paul, this verse was proof that faith is prior to the law. This was particularly important to Paul because Abram was declared righteous before he was circumcised. For Paul, Abram believed as a Gentile, one who is uncircumcised. This meant that salvation could come to those outside of the covenant if they only had faith in God. This promise is central to Christianity.

            Martin Luther built on this idea to argue that salvation comes through faith alone. Luther was so happy to be liberated from the demands of medieval Catholicism that he went overboard in his rejection of good works. He did not like the fact that the Epistle of James states that Abraham was justified by his works. Thus began a long and ultimately pointless debate in Christian theology. As John Amos Comenius pointed out, the Bible teaches both that salvation is through faith and that faith is made real only in works. He urged those with faith to be extra diligent in serving the LORD they love, and those who proclaim works should be extra zealous to love the LORD they serve. Arguments that distract us from love and service have no place in the sanctuary of the LORD.

Conclusion:                 Genesis 15 is a good story for our time. We live in perilous times that challenge our faith and our hope. Truth and faith are trampled daily by politicians, business leaders, and ordinary people. Words like freedom, justice, peace, mercy, and virtue have been twisted beyond recognition by those who love power and money. Religion is used as a weapon to abuse and the promises of Scripture have been turned into threats. Like Abram we raise our voices in challenge to God. Is there only barrenness in our lives? Do death and fear have the final word?

            We should remember that Abraham believed and it was reckoned as righteousness. Now, more than ever, we need to believe in the goodness and mercy of God. People of faith need to strengthen one another and live out of our best convictions. If we do that, then we can restore the meaning of words like covenant, freedom, truth, justice, decency, righteousness, and mercy. May we continue to love and serve the LORD especially in this time of turmoil, toil, and tears.

Lessons in John’s Gospel

John 3:22-4:3 – The Baptist’s Exit

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church; originally broadcast 12-10-06

Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. This is the second Sunday in Advent, and we are broadcasting live from the chapel of Home Church, which will soon be beautifully decorated with greenery for Christmas. Yesterday, men of the church made the annual foray into the words to bring back hundreds of pounds of cedar. Friday night, members of the church will gather and tie the cedar on to long ropes, making garlands of evergreens. I love the Friday night decorating. I think it is an important part of our Advent preparations. Children and adults alike help trim the cedar and bring it into the fellowship hall. In recent weeks I had the experience of having my 6th grade teacher hear me preach for Thanksgiving and my Social Studies teacher from 8th grade was at the Wake Forest lovefeast. It was great to see two women who played such important roles in my life. All our lives have been profoundly shaped by people who sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. A teacher’s greatest joy is the success of his or her students. The teacher must decrease in order for the student to increase. That is the theme of our lesson for this week.

Aenon near Salim:  It is very appropriate in this season of Advent that today’s lesson is about John the Baptist since he is the herald of the messiah. This is the last time he appears in John’s gospel.The Gospel of John is very detailed in its descriptions, and for the most part it is more accurate in its geography than the other gospels. Surprisingly, that attention to geographic detail is not matched by a similar concern for chronological accuracy. For instance, our passage for today opens with a statement that Jesus and his disciples went into the region of Judea even though the previous story took place in Judea. Many modern translators smooth over this difficulty by stating that Jesus left the city and went into the Judean countryside. It is quite likely that this story was originally about a trip from Jesus’ home in Galilee to Judea, but the evangelist placed it after the Nicodemus dialog to press home the connection between being born from above.

            There has been a lot research into the place names given here, Aenon and Salim. These were the names of actual towns, but there are three possible settings for this story. Two of the sites are in the Jordan Valley in Judea. The third and most likely sites are the towns of Salim and Ainun in Samaria where there were many springs in ancient times. The idea that John was baptizing in Samaria connects well with the next story, which takes place in Samaria. There are interpreters who think that the names are merely symbolic, because the names mean the springs of peace.  Thus this story points to the idea that the baptism of Jesus is a well of salvation. This also connects well with the story for next week.

Chronology:                The editor of John’s Gospel added a note to original story that indicates that this event took place before John was arrested, which is a rather obvious thing to point out. Interestingly, this is the only allusion to the arrest of John in this gospel. The other gospels indicate that Jesus did not begin preaching until after John’s arrest. We have already discussed the fact that some of John’s disciples became followers of Jesus. This implies more contact between John and Jesus than is described in the Gospels, and this scene in John’s gospel makes sense. It is safe to assume that the paths of Jesus and John crossed more than once.

Was Jesus Baptizing?            There is another curious feature of this narrative. Verse 22 clearly states that Jesus was baptizing in Judea, presumably in the Jordan River, but at the end of this passage (4:2) it denies that Jesus himself baptized. Only his disciples baptized. Raymond Brown states that this scribal addition “serves as almost indisputable evidence of the presence of several hands in the composition of John” (Brown, The Gospel of John, I:164), and I think he is correct. There is no clear reason why this scribal note was needed, unless it was to counter claims from the disciples of the Baptist that Jesus was simply imitating the master. By correcting one presumed flaw in the gospel, though, the editor caused a problem for the church later. Holy Communion can be clearly traced to the initiative and instruction of Jesus himself, but here is a gospel that denies that Jesus instituted baptism, thus undermining the idea of baptism as a sacrament. As the text now stands we are left with the strange assertion that Jesus’ disciples baptized but he did not. Some researchers have used this evidence that the Gospel of John is anti-sacramental, a claim that we will examine in a later lesson.

Dispute over Baptism:           The questions surrounding baptism pre-date the founding of the church, and we should probably not be surprised that Christians today continue to disagree about the meaning of baptism. According to verse 25 there was an argument between John’s disciples and a certain Jew about purification. This is a very awkward verse in Greek. Some ancient manuscripts read “the Jews,” which makes a little better sense. We can easily picture a dispute between John’s disciples and the religious authorities over the nature of baptism. This would agree with the evidence from the Synoptic gospels that John was a controversial figure for the Sadducees and Pharisees alike. Though this makes sense, the oldest manuscripts clearly refer to a single person as the Jew. Some scholars have speculated that in the original text, the Jew was actually Jesus, which would also make good sense in light of what follows, but there is no textual evidence to support this claim. Gail O’Day sums up the difficulty of this verse nicely, “The most that can be said confidently about this problematic verse is that it provides the pretext for the disciples’ complaint in v. 26” (O’Day, 557).       

Jealousy:        Surprisingly, the complaint was not about John. It was that Jesus and his followers were baptizing. John’s disciples were upset that this newcomer had begun his own ministry in competition to John. This kind of thing happens all the time in the history of religion. It is like the fans of Carl Perkins complaining that Elvis Presley made “Blue Suede Shoes” famous; or Moravians complaining that John Wesley took Zinzendorf’s ideas and made a bigger church out of them. In other words, the disciples of John were expressing their jealousy and resentment. They had thrown in their lot with John the Baptist and they didn’t like the fact that there was a competitor doing John’s act. In the other gospels, it was Jesus’ disciples who objected to another preacher casting out demons just like Jesus.

The disciples of John, like the disciples of Jesus in the other story, expected that their teacher would share their resentment and justify their anger. There is no doubt that John the Baptist was a self-confident prophet who openly defied the conventions of his society. We might expect that such a person would be an egomaniac or a religious fanatic who would be very angry that Jesus had not become one of his disciples. But in our lesson, John recognized that he was only a part of a much bigger drama. He did not feed into his disciples’ self-righteous indignation. Instead, he quoted a proverb that is similar to what Jesus said later to Pilate. “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.” (19:11)

This sentiment is similar to the Muslim idea that all that happens is the will of God. There can be problems with this idea. It can lead to a fatalism that justifies lack of self-assertion and action. It can also be used by those with power and wealth to claim their status as a divine entitlement. People tend to use the idea that all that happens is the will of God somewhat selectively. Those who saw the election of our current president as an expression of the will of God had a different view of the election of the previous president, for instance. In our lesson for today, this old proverb is used to minimize jealousy and conflict by offering a wise perspective on life. Let Jesus do what God has called Jesus to do, and if it prospers, then the work of God prospers. John reminded his disciples that their message was not about John the Baptist; it was about God’s salvation. So what if Jesus gained more disciples? As Kris Kringle said in Miracle on 34th St., the important thing is the happiness of the child, regardless of whether Macy’s or Gimbel’s makes the sale. The important thing for John was that people were hearing the message and responding.

The Friend of the Bridegroom:         John uses a wedding metaphor to explain the situation. He is the friend of the Groom, not the Bridegroom. Marriage is an important metaphor in the Johannine writings where the kingdom of God is often described in terms of a wedding banquet. The OT speaks often of Israel as the Bride of God, and there is a Jewish festival in the spring that celebrates the marriage of Israel and God. The Talmud depicts Moses as the best man at the wedding. So, this language of marriage in John has deep Jewish roots. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus used a wedding metaphor to explain why the disciples of John fasted but his followers did not. The wedding is an image of intimacy, love, and joy that has largely been lost in modern Christianity. This story was probably intentionally placed near the story of the wedding at Cana.

            But John is making a very specific point. In Jewish tradition the shoshben is the closest friend of the groom, and in the old days it was the shoshben who made all of the arrangements for the wedding festival. In our society that role usually falls on the mother of the bride, so we miss some of the significance of what John is saying here. John the Baptist is the one who sacrifices and works to prepare for the wedding, but it is the groom and his bride who will be the center of attention. The best man’s efforts are for the sake of someone else. His joy is the joy of seeing a friend enjoying himself and being happy. The best man plays a role similar to that of a mid-wife. He assists in bringing about the joy of another person.

Altruism:         There are scientists and philosophers who claim that all humans are irredeemably selfish. I always assume that such people are just talking about themselves and want to justify their selfishness. I think that they ignore the plain evidence of friendship. There are times when we humans sacrifice our pleasure for the happiness of someone else. I know a man who gave one of his kidneys so that his best friend could live. His joy is fulfilled in the knowledge that his friend can now enjoy riding his motorcycle again. This is the role that the ascetic John claims: his joy is the joy that comes from serving the Bridegroom.

            The best friend must step aside for the sake of the one he loves, just as a coach has to step back to let the athletes succeed. It is precisely because the Baptist is preparing for the Messiah that he must decrease. He is a steward preparing for the coming of the king. His work will be completed by someone else. In the church calendar, the birth of Jesus is placed on Dec. 25, the date when it is evident that the days are increasing. In contrast, the birth of John was placed on June 24, when the days begin to decrease. Even the calendar reminds us that those who proclaim Christ must learn to step aside and rejoice that people follow him not the preacher.

One From Above:      The last five verses of chapter 3 repeat the themes that were part of the conversation with Nicodemus. The one who comes from heaven has the authority to speak of heavenly things. Many readers do not like how much repetition there is in the Gospel of John, but we have to remember that repetition is essential to memory. What is intriguing about repetition in John’s gospel is how many of the sayings of Jesus are presented with the kind of slight variations we would expect from an oral tradition. Rather than include just one version of an important saying of Jesus, this gospel includes the variations that have been remembered in the church.

            One question that has troubled commentators for nearly 1800 years is just who is speaking in this section. We naturally assume that it was John the Baptist since he was speaking just prior to this, but modern translators disagree about where to place the ending quotation marks. Many believe that the speaker here is the evangelist who is interpreting the meaning of Jesus. A strong case can be made for Jesus as the speaker of these verses, at least originally. They closely parallel other speeches by Jesus in John’s Gospel. As we have already seen, it is virtually impossible to determine when Jesus is speaking and when it is the evangelist because the author of this gospel was convinced that he was presenting the true teaching of the resurrected Jesus. What most likely happened is that the evangelist included a statement of Jesus from oral tradition that was intended to summarize and reiterate the teachings given in both the Nicodemus conversation and the final witness of John the Baptist.

Father and Son:          Rather than repeating what was said in the previous two lessons let me highlight the distinctive ideas in this section. First, there is an apparent contrast between the witness of John the Baptist, who was of this earth, and the teaching of Jesus who came from heaven. This was not an insult to John, but it serves an indication that John and his baptism were part of the old covenant. Jesus brings a new revelation that is confirmed by the Spirit of God. Second, there is a strange statement that no one accepts the testimony of the one from heaven. This must be hyperbole since the next verse refers to those who do believe. Third, v. 34 refers to the Son as the one who gives the Spirit, which will become an important theme later in the gospel. Fourth, in this passage we have a transition from the word God to the word Father. It appears that these are equal terms, God is the Father and the Father is God.

            Increasingly in this Gospel, Jesus will speak of his Father. This is not the Aramaic “Abba,” but the Greek “Pater.” We should not make too much of the supposed gender of God the Father. The word is used here primarily as a word of relationship. God is Father because Jesus is the Son; therefore those who listen to the words of Jesus can be confident they are listening to the words of God. To obey Jesus is to obey God because God has given all things to the Son.

Conclusion:     The final point to bring up in this passage is the note of judgment at the end of this speech, which repeats the themes of John 3:16-3:18. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but the wrath of God remains on those who do not obey. To believe in the Son means to place one’s life in the Son. This is a commitment, a way of life. Just as some people believe in science or in the stock market or in Marxism, John calls us to believe in the Son as the one who gives meaning and purpose to our existence. Notice the curious contrast between believing in the Son and disobeying him. To believe in the Son is to do the will of the Son. Such belief gives life. This is not just a matter of heaven after we die. It is life unending.

            The last thing to note in this passage is the grim ending. Those who disobey the Son will endure the wrath of God. We saw this same sense of judgment in last week’s lesson, but here the judgment is identified as God’s wrath. There are only 5 times in the four gospels that God’s wrath is mentioned. Three of them are in connection with the witness of John the Baptist, as we have here. John’s Gospel does not spell out the nature of the wrath of God, but clearly it is in contrast to the life that is given through the Son. The evangelist was no doubt familiar with the OT idea that God sets before us life and death. We must choose. Do we live in the Son or do we choose the path of death? In the previous century, humans used science and technology to kill hundreds of millions of people and bring us to the brink of global extinction of all life. We have seen the path of death and wrath. Perhaps in this century, we can choose the path of Jesus.

The Gospel of John

John 2:23-3:8 – Nicodemus:

Adult Bible Class, Home Moravian Church. Originally aired Nov. 26, 2006

Transition:      Last week we discussed the cleansing of the Temple in the second chapter of John. Someone in class pointed out that Jesus’ apparent opposition to the Temple was consistent with the perspective of some of the OT prophets, such as Micah and Amos, who taught that God requires justice and mercy more than animal sacrifices. This is an important observation that reminds us of the ironic fact that the opposition to Judaism evident throughout John’s Gospel is closely connected to the Jewishness of the Gospel. The cleansing of the Temple was part of a long debate within Judaism over the nature of worship, the observance of the Torah, and the role of prophets. John’s Gospel draws extensively on the Old Testament and other Jewish sources in proclaiming the message of Jesus. We should also note that in each of the other three gospels, Jesus directly quotes from the OT prophets who rejected animal sacrifice and called righteousness. In short, the cleansing of the Temple was an expression of the Jewishness of Jesus even as it because a rejection of Judaism.

Belief because of Signs:        The verses at the end of chapter 2 serve as a transition from that story to the story that is our lesson for today. John reports that many people in Jerusalem believed in Jesus because of the signs he was doing, but he says that “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all about people.” Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is a somewhat mysterious figure, separate from the crowds that gather around him. He is like an eastern sage who possesses knowledge but is wise enough to be cautious in speaking what he knows to the crowds. The references to signs here is one of the many indications in John that Jesus did much more than is narrated in the gospels since the only sign John has told us about so far was done in Cana, not Jerusalem. It is possible that the cleansing of the Temple was itself a sign, but the implication is that Jesus performed miracles in Jerusalem and some people believed because of the signs. One of those people was Nicodemus, who visits Jesus at night to investigate his activities. Unlike the other three gospels, day and night are used for symbolic purpose in John’s Gospel. Jesus The story of Nicodemus takes place at night, but it ends with Jesus’ saying that those who do evil choose the night because they are afraid of their deeds being made known.

Nicodemus                  Since Nicodemus is mentioned only in the Gospel of John, some scholars have speculated that he is a literary invention of the evangelist. It may surprise you to learn that preachers have been known to make up stories that illustrate the point of the sermon. It is possible that John created this conversation with Nicodemus in order to teach new Christians the doctrine of his church. The dialog is even structured like a catechism with questions and answers. But we should not dismiss Nicodemus too soon. There is a parallel story in the other gospels about a wealthy aristocrat who came to Jesus asking how to enter the kingdom of God. Though that encounter is narrated differently than the conversation with Nicodemus in John, it is quite likely that these are two different versions of the same event. John often records authentic historical details not included in the other Gospels, such as the name of the aristocrat, even though he uses the oral tradition more creatively than the other evangelists.

            I think we can assume Nicodemus was a real person, and what we learn about him is interesting. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of Judea under Roman occupation. There were 70 members of this council, including representatives of the Sadducees, Pharisees, and wealthy land-owners. It was similar to our Congress which is composed primarily of wealthy individuals representing the legal profession, merchants, and a few prominent families, like the Kennedys and Rockefellers. It was the Sanhedrin that had Jesus arrested and handed him over to the Roman governor. By showing that a member of the Sanhedrin believed in Jesus, John shows us that at least one Jew defended Jesus before the council and provided for Jesus’ burial. This mitigates some of the anti-semitism in the gospel.

            Even though Nicodemus was probably a real purpose, the conversation presented in chapter 3 is not a verbatim recording of what was said between Jesus and Nicodemus. It is doubtful they had a secretary keeping minutes of the proceedings. As early as the 2nd century, Christian scholars have recognized that this discourse seems to fit the last week of Jesus’ life better than the first week of his public ministry (Brown, Gospel of John, 1:135), but John is not at all interested in establishing an accurate chronology of Jesus’ life.

            Even within this conversation with Nicodemus, the time-frame shifts and it sounds as if Jesus has already been raised from the dead. As Raymond Brown points out, “In the Johanine references to Jesus there is a strange timelessness or indifference to normal time sequences that must be reckoned with” (Brown, 132). John uses the questions of Nicodemus to provide a summary of the Beloved Disciple’s teaching about faith in Jesus. It is placed after the cleansing of the Temple and before a discussion of baptism to emphasize that this is about the radical change in the covenant that Jesus brought about it. It is a sermon about a change of life, a rebirth symbolized by the waters of baptism. It is not a story about the distant past but an invitation to us to share in the new life offered by the resurrected Jesus.

A Teacher from God:             Nicodemus begins by telling Jesus “we know you are a teacher sent by God.” It is not clear who the “we” refers to. Many commentators assume that Nicodemus is speaking on behalf of members of the Sanhedrin. If that is the case, then this may be a parallel to the instances in the other gospels when the authorities sent people to trap Jesus into saying something that could get him arrested. Such spies always used flattery such as Nicodemus uses. So, we cannot dismiss the possibility that Nicodemus came to Jesus with bad intentions, and that Jesus uses cryptic answers to avoid being arrested, but that does not fit the mood of the story. It is equally possible that Nicodemus was speaking the truth, and that the Sanhedrin did recognize that Jesus was a teacher sent by God. In that case, John would be using this statement to indict the council for knowingly condemning a righteous man.

            A third possibility is that Nicodemus was speaking for those mentioned in the preceding verses who believed in Jesus because of his signs. Taken at face value, Nicodemus was saying that he believed that Jesus was like Moses or Elijah. To be sent by God, for him, did not mean that Jesus had come from heaven. It meant that God had chosen him to give a prophetic word. Jesus does not reject what Nicodemus says, but he does challenge Nicodemus with a new perspective that will force Nicodemus to make a decision.

            One of the intriguing features of John’s Gospel is that almost every sermon Jesus gives is precipitated by a question that he doesn’t really answer. They taught us in preaching class that sermons should be relevant and answer the real questions that people in the pews are asking, but John did not go to the Moravian Seminary. He answered questions that people did not know that they should have been asking. Here in chapter 3, Jesus gives an answer even when there was no question. This has led some scholars to speculate that the evangelist or a later editor altered the original story in which a rich young ruler asks Jesus about entering the kingdom of God or receiving eternal life (Luke 18:8). That question is certainly implied in Jesus’ response since he talks about seeing the kingdom of God. By omitting the original question, John may have been trying to emphasize that Nicodemus, like others, had seen the signs without coming to a true understanding of their significance. Nicodemus did not recognize that the Kingdom of God had arrived in the person of Jesus. He believed partially, but could not believe fully.

Born Again/ Born from Above:         The focus of Jesus’ discourse is the statement that no one can see the kingdom without being born from above. This saying is introduced in a very solemn manner. In Greek, Jesus says Amen, amen lego, which modern translators render in different ways in English. The NIV says, “I tell you the truth.” The NRSV says, “Very truly, I tell you.” The KJV said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you,” which is the most literal rendering. What gets lost in translation is the connection of this phrase and the church’s liturgy. Amen, amen, I say to you is very formal worship language. Three times in this conversation, Jesus uses this very stylized formula to introduce his pronouncements. It is reasonable to assume that these were statements that had become part of the formal liturgy of the church founded by the Beloved Disciple and were remembered much like epic poetry.

            According to these sayings, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. If you grew up in the South, as I did, you have probably had someone ask you if you have been “born again.” This idea is closely connected to the theology and practice of evangelicalism, which teaches that each individual must have a conversion experience that is such a radical change of life that you can call it a second birth. People often have this conversion as part of a revival service. We can’t go into detail on the importance of this idea of being born again in American religion, but I don’t think that we should make this concept of being “born again” a dividing point among Christians. The only reason I am bringing up the idea of being born again is that it is based primarily on Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus, which is curiously in the plural. “Y’all must be born again,” it says in our vernacular.

            Or does he? The curious thing is that the Greek word John uses here (anothen) has a double meaning. Translators have to decide whether to render this phrase as “born again” or “born from above.” This double meaning does not occur in Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, or English, so we do not know for sure what Jesus might have said originally. Most scholars believe that John the evangelist intentionally used a Greek word with a double meaning because he meant both things: born from above and born anew. Nicodemus thought Jesus said “born again,” which appears to be a misunderstanding. He must have been a literalist since he thought Jesus was saying that a grown man should enter into his mother’s womb again. Jesus has to straighten Nicodemus out by pointing out that he was speaking spiritually not physically. He was saying that humans must be born from above, which refers to a radical change of life that includes seeing the world from God’s perspective.

Born of Water and Spirit:      Jesus says that the kingdom of God is for those who have been born of water and the Spirit. Just as physical birth involves flesh producing flesh in a woman’s body; spiritual birth involves the Spirit giving birth to a new spirit. Scholars debate whether John is using a maternal or paternal image for God’s spirit here. In the first letter of John it refers to Christians being begotten by the seed of God. Some early Christians believed that there was a spark of God or a seed of God in all persons who were truly spiritual beings.

            The simplest reading of this statement in chapter 3 leads us to a maternal image of God as the one who gives birth to sons and daughters. John’s Gospel speaks of God the Father quite a bit, but this image of being born again presents a maternal God. I am surprised that so many evangelicals preach about being born again without contemplating the significance of that spiritual experience for our understanding of God.

Born of Spirit:            Jesus seems to think that Nicodemus should have understood this idea of being born of God through his study of the Scriptures. Though this is not a major theme of the OT, there are passages that speak of individuals being born of God. The nation itself was called the son of God by prophets like Hosea. When Nicodemus expresses his skepticism over this spiritual rebirth, Jesus presses the point by relating new birth with the work of the Spirit of God.

            We have separate words for “wind,” “breath,” and “spirit,” but that was not the case in Greek or Hebrew. In the ancient world, life was defined in terms of breath. The physical breath was equated with the inner spirit that animated a human being. In Greek the word for breath or spirit is Pneuma, which is the root of the words pneumatic and pneumonia. In Hebrew, the word is Ruach. You may remember that God breathed his Ruach into Adam to make him alive. There are many verses in the Wisdom literature that equate God’s spirit with the breath of life in humans. This same wind or Spirit brought the word of God to the prophets and gave them their power.  There are many passages in the later prophets and in Jewish apocalyptic literature that indicated that in the last days, God’s spirit (breath or wind) would blow on the people of God (Brown, 140), giving them new vitality and power. The coming of the Messiah would include this outpouring of the Spirit of God, which would include signs and wonders. John’s Gospel connects the outpouring of the Spirit directly to Jesus. Those who enter the kingdom of God are born again as the children of the heavenly Father.

Mystery of Faith:       But, like the physical wind, this rebirth is a mysterious process. One of the nice things about John’s Gospel is that it respects the mystery of God. It does not attempt to explain the unexplainable. The spirit of God is like the wind that cannot be seen with mortal eyes and cannot be controlled by the human will. You know it only by its effects, by the dead leaves being blow away. You cannot see the spirit of God, but you can see the effects. You can see the change in people’s lives when they are reborn. You can see what happens when they turn away from the pleasures of the night and live according to the light.

            You don’t need to hear someone’s testimony or their conversation story to know that they have been born from above. It will shine from their eyes and be evident in their actions. In the other three Gospels, Jesus tells many parables about the Kingdom of God. Here, the Gospel of John acknowledges the mysterious nature of that kingdom. Only those who are willing to be born from above and become like children can enter it. Not everyone can even see the kingdom, but those who have been born from above can see it and live it. John does not tell us if Nicodemus believed in Jesus and was born from above, but we do know that he bought the spices to bury the body of the man he visited one night. The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it.

Absence

I thought I should explain the long silence on the blog. I am currently in Rome. I am representing WFU School of Divinity (along with Dr. Lipsett) at a seminar titled Rome – Crossroads of Religions. We came with four students. It is a wonderful experience. Rome truly is overwhelming and the seminar sessions have been very stimulating. My paper is tomorrow and the topic is the reform proposals of John Amos Comenius.

I had hoped to edit and post my lessons while away, but I have had limited computer access. So, it will have to wait a few days, and then I’ll try to post every couple of days. Jason Matlack has been proof-reading them for me.

So, ciao for now, y’all!